What Ronaldo can expect in Saudi Arabia
3: 26 PM ET
Mark OgdenSenior Writer, ESPN FC
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Cristiano Ronaldo wanted a Champions League swan song in the football cathedrals of Madrid, Milan or Munich, playing on the biggest stage with and against the most famous players in the game. Instead, the floodlights on his glittering career in Mrsool Park, Al-Nassr’s compact stadium in Al-Saud University’s grounds will fade. It is located just one mile from Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Investment. It is a strange setting, but considering the financial package Ronaldo was offered to join Al-Nassr’s club, it seems like the Ministry of Investment would be a good neighbor. The $75 million-a-year (PS62m) contract Ronaldo has signed with Saudi Arabia’s second-biggest team — Riyadh rivals Al-Hilal, reigning Asian Champions League winners, are the Real Madrid in this part of the world — will certainly soften the blow of the 37-year-old’s diminished status that inevitably comes with his move to the Saudi Pro League, but surely it wasn’t meant to come to this.
– Ronaldo signs with Al-Nassr after Man United exit
– Explainer: What’s the Saudi Pro League like?
When he made it clear he wanted to leave Manchester United in the summer, Ronaldo’s desire to move was driven by a determination to play in the Champions League. There were no major European buyers for his talents at the time and United cancelled his contract during World Cup. Since then, there have not been any. Al-Nassr’s lucrative contract, which had been on the market for nearly two months, proved to be the best and only option for one the greatest footballers to ever play the game.
His new teammates will include former Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina, Cameroon forward Vincent Aboubakar and Talisca, the Brazilian striker who leads the scoring charts in the Saudi Pro League with nine goals so far this season. Odion Ighalo, the former Manchester United forward, is one of three players in second place with six goals. Ronaldo’s career has been based in the historic football towns of Lisbon, Madrid, Madrid, Turin, and Madrid. But life in Saudi Arabia will be completely different.
Ronaldo is likely to cause a stir in Saudi Arabia. The country has a well-resourced national league and league, but he also runs the risk of being out of sight or out of mind after the switch.
Social life in Riyadh seems to revolve around shopping malls. While Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy and an authoritarian state that strictly forbids alcohol consumption and employs religious police to uphold its strict interpretation of Islam, the growing power of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has seen the country tentatively open up to Western influences in recent years. It is in malls that the new Saudi Arabia emerges — a world where Ronaldo will soon live. People who think Ronaldo will live in a country different to North America and Europe are wrong. It’s the exact same thing, but it’s a little different.
The View Mall is central Riyadh and could be in London, New York, or Los Angeles. The multiscreen cinema shows “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”, “Puss in Boots”, and “Bed Rest.” There’s also a bowling alley right next to the gaming arcade. Families enjoy dinner at Nando’s, eating at Magnolia Bakery, and watching football while they wait to bowl at Bob’s Famous Eat Bowl and Chill.
It is the same at the Kingdom Tower Mall across the town, right next to the Four Seasons Hotel which could have been built in honor of Ronaldo and his family. The centre is designed for the wealthy and famous, with stores on the four floors including Dior, Louis Vuitton’s, Tiffany’s, and Victoria’s Secret.
Across the street is a Nike store. One large image of a footballer wraps around the window. He is a wearing a Manchester United shirt, but it isn’t Ronaldo: it’s Marcus Rashford. Talk to the Uber drivers, hotel staff, or baristas at the coffee shops about football. They all love it. The majority claim to be supporters of Al Ittihad, the Jeddah-based team, and they all talk excitedly about Saudi Arabia’s recent World Cup showing in which they beat eventual champions Argentina 2-1. In terms of their favourite players, two stand out as being mentioned more than the others: Paul Pogba and Mohamed Salah. Nobody says Ronaldo or even Lionel Messi, who agreed a PS25 million-a-year contract to become the face of the Saudi Arabia tourist board in May. According to a source from Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Sport,
“Pogba is very popular because they are great players but also because they are Muslim.” ESPN reported that a source at the Ministry of Sport said that Salah and Salah were “very popular, primarily due to their great players but also because they have been Muslim.” They endorse Pepsi, which is huge in Saudi Arabia because Pepsi has a larger market share than Coca-Cola. These two players are big names in the country, but they are not as popular as the top Saudi players. “
Mark Ogden feels Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Saudi Arabian club Al-Nassr is a sad ending to his football career.
Life as a leading footballer in Saudi Arabia is a privileged one, though it’s not just Ronaldo who will be given the star treatment.
The salaries of the Pro League players are comparable to those in the major European leagues. Although their income is not as high as those in LaLiga or the Premier League, the overall packages are so extensive that it is rare for a Saudi Arabian footballer to move to Europe. ESPN reported that top Saudi players are treated like rock stars and given huge houses in exclusive compounds. They also have access to cars and security-patrolled luxury accommodations. “
There is also no income tax for Saudi nationals, with a 20% flat rate on tax-adjusted profit for non-Saudis. Ronaldo, as well as all foreign players in Pro League, will lose far less than he would in any European league.
Ronaldo will enjoy all the perks that are reserved for the top players in Saudi Arabia. A luxurious villa in the Al Muhammadiyah compound, the best schools and the best cars. He will still have to deal with the unpleasant aspects of Riyadh’s city life, such as traffic jams and smog.
Mrsool Park (Mrsool is an app-based delivery platform) holds just 25,000 spectators when full. Although it is clean and tidy, the seats are yellow and blue to match Al-Nassr’s colours.
There is also no club shop at this stadium. You can purchase an Al-Nassr Ronaldo shirt featuring his trademark No. 7 on the back, you will have to take an Uber ride to the club’s small outlet 30 minutes away. The stadium’s size and absence of a club shop make it clear that Al-Nassr is not ready for the attention Ronaldo will bring. Al-Ittihad are Saudi Arabia’s best-supported team, with an average attendance of 31,309 at their 62,000-capacity King Abdullah Sports City Stadium during the 2021-22 season. Reigning champions Al-Hilal averaged 13,192 fans-per-game at their 67,000-capacity King Fahd Stadium, while Al-Nassr could only muster an average crowd of 8,121 at Mrsool Park. It has been a while since Cristiano Rojo played in a club game at a half-empty venue. But, he may have to get used it in Saudi Arabia. Although his global fame will increase interest in games, it would be unrealistic to expect full houses everywhere he goes.
The Saudi Pro League is well-funded and backed passionately by fans — Al-Hilal’s ultras made a lot of noise during their friendly game against Newcastle in Riyadh — but it will be a different challenge to Ronaldo. It is football, and Ronaldo won’t be able to take it easy.
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“Football in Saudi Arabia is real,” Ian Cathro, assistant manager at Al Ittihad, told ESPN. After having worked with Nuno Espirito Sante at Wolves and Tottenham, I noticed immediately how real soccer is in Saudi Arabia. It is competitive and passionate just like anywhere else I have worked. The facilities are excellent, there’s a real intensity and the players are of the highest quality, as we saw with Saudi Arabia during World Cup.
” There is also a sense of pride that all the top Saudi players still play in their domestic league. I am certain that Cristiano Ronaldo’s presence in the league will make Saudi Arabian football even more popular and help to put it on the map. “
Al-Nassr described the Ronaldo signing as “history in the making” when they announced the deal on Friday, adding that it would “inspire our nation and future generations of boys and girls to be the best version of themselves.” After his trip to Saudi Arabia, Ronaldo will be able to leave a legacy. But Al-Nassr will face Al-Tai at Mrsool Park Jan. 5 and that will make it all very real for the five-time Ballon d’Or Winner.
Ronaldo will retire from the spotlight, which is a sad thing for a player who has longed for every second of attention over the past two decades.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.